Vacuum Tubes and the Circuits of Memory

I’ve had the opportunity to resume this project with a massive reading and research campaign that began back in May, and will now be bringing it forward to a book and fully fledged digital humanities initiative on church architecture and memory in Proust. This site will remain as a blog, database, and data repository as I think through the material and the practices that we engage in as humanists and digital scholars. It’s been interesting—even moving—to pick up a project that had been a side show during graduate school, as the layers of memory and return to the past form a nice analog to the quest in Proust’s Recherche itself.

Thinking through the ideas of memory and return has been stimulated in other ways, notably through a hobby (habit?) in vacuum tube electronics that leads to some much broader questions about making and technology that inform our mission as humanists. The pursuit of the sound of a particular music amplifier system by the Wright Sound Company, which needless to say has a completely analog signal chain, has some interesting parallels with the digital practices I’ve explored with Proust and modernist periodicals, as well as the substance of the Recherche.

The forays into text mining, topic modeling, and network analysis that appeared here back in 2010 and 2011 were done with no clear idea of what I wanted the data to show. I played with the software so as to gain a sense of the possibilities, and a new obsession was born. I will never forget the thrill of beholding my first Gephi network graph, and thinking, ‘So that’s the church motif!” With these tools, the temporal dimension of memory is eliminated: it flattens the chronology of the narrative and its interpretive metadata to make all connections simultaneously present. What this means for the study of Proust is that we can think of the novel (and the novel genre) as a network of nodes consisting of concepts, characters, narrative elements, and any other unit of meaning that might enhance exploration of its text. It is an electrical circuit in which a magical being resides.

Architecture, like music and writing, is an art of rhythm and thematic variation that necessarily builds upon a kind of internal memory structure. When a recurring element such as a motif is modulated back into the composition, it brings with it the associated emotions and ideas of its previous iterations but with differences arising from the effect of the intervening material. Biological memory functions in much the same way, and Proust was fully aware of this: when a memory is recalled, it is actively re-created by the mind with alterations stemming from the act. New layers of emotional association are added onto it like a palimpsest.

Proust’s Narrator at one point ascribes memory to objects rather than the mind, a notion that, when extended, renders the church as a kind of prosthetic memory device. “[T]here is much to be said,” says the Narrator, “for the Celtic belief that the souls of those whom we have lost are held captive in some inferior being, in an animal, in a plant, in some inanimate object, and thus effectively lost to us until the day (which to many never comes) when we happen to pass by the tree or to obtain possession of the object which forms their prison” (I.59) “And so it is with our own past,” he continues. “It is a labour in vain to attempt to recapture it. All the efforts of our intellect must prove futile” (I.59). Thus the connectivity of involuntary memory is an epiphanic moment resembling an electrical shock—it is always an accident and puts one in direct contact with reality like nothing else can. Hence the potential in moments like the famous madeleine scene, in which a certain combination of gustatory and olfactory impressions spontaneously unlock (unimprison) and galvanize the Narrator’s childhood memories, which become as real as a self-contained world.

One of the more interesting aspects of the Recherche is the way in which music, like church architecture, becomes a medium of shared memory among asynchronous and even inter-generational subjectivities. For instance, the “little phrase” of Vinteuil’s sonata attains a monumental significance for the Narrator, even though the events that created its significance occurred a generation earlier when his parents’ friend Swann was haunted—in the literal sense—by the phrase at a salon during the waning days of his love affair with Odette. The experience attains the dimensions of a religious ritual in which “a pure and supernatural being… unfolds its invisible message as it goes by” (I.494). The musicians are not so much playing the little phrase but “performing the rites on which [this being] insisted before it would consent to appear… Swann, who was no more able to see it than if it had belonged to a world of ultra-violet light… felt its presence like that of a protective goddess, a confidante of his love, who… had disguised herself in this sweeping cloak of sound. And as she passed… he made involuntarily with his lips the motion of kissing [an act of consummation], as it went by him, the harmonious, fleeting form” (I.494). As a consequence of the apparition, “Swann had regarded musical motifs as actual ideas, of another world, of another order, ideas veiled in shadows, unknown, impenetrable by the human mind” (I.496), which is largely congruous with the Narrator’s belief that memories, like souls in the pagan imagination, reside in external objects and are essentially real beings.

Many years later, in Volume 5, The Prisoner, the Narrator—attending the salon of Mme Verdurin while in the throes of jealousy over Albertine, whom he has imprisoned in their now deteriorating love affair—experiences an apparition similar to Swann’s upon hearing a performance of an unpublished Vinteuil septet. “The concert began,” he says, presuming that a work by some other composer would be played before the Vinteuil piece. Suddenly the music becomes a “magical apparition” that washes over him like “a genie, or a maiden of ravishing beauty” (V.331). “[A]ll of a sudden,” he recounts, “I found myself, in the midst of this music that was new to me, right in the heart of Vinteuil’s sonata, and, more marvelous than any girl, the little phrase… came to me, recognizable in this new guise. My joy at having rediscovered it was enhanced by the tone, so friendly and familiar, which it adopted in addressing me….” (V.332). The surprise of hearing the familiar phrase in an unfamiliar setting reinforces for the Narrator, as it had for Swann, that an independent reality resides in the motif, in the external object, and is there to be recalled when a state of dehabitualization renders the subject passively receptive. But it also means that the Narrator and Swann are able to consummate with the hidden reality that the music embodies in a moment of shared consciousness across a generation of Time. Music, like church architecture, is another medium of memory storage and retrieval, and I am willing to bet that many of us digital humanists approach our data practices with a similar aesthetic or emotional drive to unimprison the genie in that series of 1’s and 0’s.

Much of my recent technology work has not been academic, and has not been with digital but with analog technology, and I realized only recently that it is likewise a Proustian journey of chasing impressions. As an incurable tinkerer, for the past couple of years I have become obsessed with vacuum tube electronics in an effort to recreate the sound of the first stereo tube amplifiers I ever heard, and with which I fell in love. When I was 25 and living as a bachelor with a close friend, a mutual acquaintance lent us a tube amplifier system designed and built by the late George Wright. As a musician and avid music lover my whole life, I had thought I knew good sound reproduction but was wholly unprepared for what greeted my ears on that fateful day. Listening to Black Sabbath’s Paranoid was the aural equivalent to eating raw steak. A Mabel Mercer record fooled my senses into believing that a live person, like the goddess who touches Swann and the Narrator, was in the room singing to us – that feeling you get when someone is physically present. The three-dimensional sound stage projected by the stereo pair gave her a sonic embodiment in space that we could walk around every side of. Later, as we listened to an LP of a late 1950s recording of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, my ears could hear sounds from far beyond the walls of the room, wherein I could pinpoint each instrument of the massive orchestra in three-dimensional space. While that was amazing in a material and technological sense, the combined effect conveyed the emotion of the performance so powerfully that the three of us were speechless for several minutes after the record ended. It was a technologically enhanced sensory experience that triggered a transcendent state, connecting us with the structures of feeling of 1950s and 1820s Germany.

Making tube amps began for me as an affordable way to attain that sound but has in hindsight attained a much broader scope: it was the year 9/11 happened, a year in which I bonded in new ways with old friends, the year I met my wife, the year I applied to PhD programs and was on the cusp of transforming from a younger, less mature adulthood into something else—the turning point which led the world and myself down the path we are on now. In short, whether I realized it or not, my obsession with amp making has turned to unimprisoning, reanimating, and reconnecting with that past which is now lost—which is the very nature of music reproduction. Though the results have been good so far, I haven’t yet found that sound which summons the genie from the thermionic bottles, though I have now set up a breadboard on which I am about to test the circuit in question, which I have reverse-engineered from Internet sale pictures and crowdsourcing on DIY audio fora (George never wrote down schematics). When I discover it, it will be reimprisoned in my living room and bid to sing on command. How strange we become once we’ve heard the Siren’s song.

But what strikes me in all of these—Proust, DH, DIY audio—is that they have at their core the human impulse to invent technologies that indirectly resurrect and recreate—that mediate—the independent realities of the past. Hi-fi—that is, the technology of reproduction, not just the music it channels—is moving not just because it’s cool, but because when done well it provides an aesthetic experience of connection with that Lost Time by recreating it – the original event plus whatever associations we’ve added onto it in the intervening iterations. DH writ large develops technology in order to uncover some state of affairs in the text, the corpus, or the dataset so that it shows us the reality of some important aspect of our collective past. Proust invented new writing techniques in order to explore the avenues of memory and to recreate Lost Time on the page so that we might know it too. While we must continue to improve our analytic techniques, let us be mindful of the synthetic, the human side which those techniques serve. I’m sure many of our colleagues have experienced intellectual breakthroughs that started as whims, so let us not forget that whimsy can be found in a range of practices beyond reading and writing – in the guilty pleasures of dataviz for its own sake or the vintage parts bin at the electronics store. We develop technologies for our own emotional and epistemological needs all the time, so why not expand the range of practice to enrich our discourse? The circuitous ways in which we go about our quests often tell us more than our circuits of memory.

NB: Most of the content here was presented, in a slightly altered form, at the DH@OU#4: Digital Humanities Symposium, University of Oklahoma, September 5, 2017.